Sunday, April 10, 2016

On a Rail to the Future

If you were to take a measuring tape to one of the many railways embedded in or buried under Toronto's streets -- not recommended, incidentally, because those tracks are heavily used -- you'd find something unique, if a bit pedestrian. Every railway has a track gauge, which is just how far apart the rails are. The miniature railways you'll find at certain tourist attractions may have only a fifteen-inch gauge, while the broad-gauge railways of India, Pakistan, and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit are five and a half feet wide. In Toronto, you'd find that the rails are built to a gauge of 4 feet, 10 7⁄8 inches -- just slightly wider than standard gauge -- and nowhere else in the world will you find operating tracks built to that specification.

It's not because Toronto wanted to be unique and special. It goes back to 1861, when the first horsecar lines started operating in the young city; the rails were built with that specific gauge so that the carriages in use at the time could themselves take advantage of the rails. As the streetcar system expanded, the track gauge was maintained so that the same equipment could be used across the entire network, and as the Toronto subway was initially aiming to use streetcar-derived rolling stock, the underground railways use the same track separation because of one decision a hundred and fifty years ago.

Why do I bring this up? Because it's a simple illustration of how history echoes; not only can simple choices have wide-ranging consequences, but the past reverberates in the present.

These rails haven't even been used for fifty years, and yet they're still here.
This is not something a lot of people appear to understand. Case in point: Hillary Clinton, the presumptive heir to the Democratic presidential nomination because, well, her last name is "Clinton." Back in 2010, while she was still Secretary of State, she commented on the issue of African economic development, but in the sort of tin-eared way that only a Westerner who thinks history is "just a bunch of things that happened" could.

"For goodness sakes, this is the 21st century," Reuters quoted Clinton as saying. "We've got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let's make money for everybody."

Think back to rails for a moment. Toronto's unique track gauge is the result of a simple choice a hundred and fifty years ago, but it's not going away. To remove it from the face of Earth would not only mean tearing up eighty-two kilometers of streetcar lines, but the complete re-railing of nearly a hundred kilometers of subway and the retrofitting of hundreds of subway trains and streetcars. It would take a supreme effort to make the gauge go away.

The Western conquest and occupation of Africa lasted for decades. It carved scars that will never heal. Just as the outlines of the Roman Empire are visible in the shape of the world today, two thousand years later -- hell, there's a legend that says wagon wheel gauges go back to ruts cut by Roman chariots -- in the forty-first century, the damage that the West caused to Africa, and Asia, and, hell, anywhere that wasn't the West, will still be visible.

It will take a supreme effort to for the conquered and oppressed regions of the world to heal. It is not something that can just be "got over." To make a statement like that betrays not only privilege but unthinking privilege, and helps illustrate why Clinton is fortunate she's going against candidates as oozily unlikeable as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

History is loud, and we live in an echo chamber. The voices of the past still whisper today.